The Sound of Shouting and Weeping: Ezra 3

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the LORD with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD,
           “For he is good,
           for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:10-13 NRSV)

The task of choosing a single favorite Bible passage is a difficult one for me, not just because I love so many biblical texts, but especially because the Bible itself is so diverse. It contains many different kinds of literature, such as poetry, short stories, prophecies, prayers, proverbs, ritual instruction, and historical accounts. It describes events set across the span of a thousand years, and it represents a variety of theological perspectives from those eras. Different moments call for different texts. With apologies to the author of Ecclesiastes 3, I find there is a time for every text under heaven.

Yet, even with all of those caveats, Ezra 3:10-13 stands out as a particularly beautiful passage, one that addresses the bittersweet nature of generational difference and change. The story is, on the one hand, deeply rooted in one historical event: the laying of the foundations of the second Jerusalem Temple, the house of God. On the other hand, there is a timelessness about the account that leads all its readers to think of times when “the sound of the joyful shout” cannot be distinguished from “the sound of the people’s weeping.”

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe life in Judah in the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., when the Persian Empire ruled the ancient Near East. In 586 B.C.E. the Babylonian Empire had besieged the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and exiled Judah’s elites. When Persia defeated Babylon and assumed control of Judah around 539the Persian king Cyrus the Great allowed the exiled Judeans to return to Judah, rebuild the Temple, and reconstitute their community there (see Ezra 1).

According to Ezra 3:1-8, the returnees quickly rebuilt the sanctuary’s altar so that they could begin offering sacrifices regularly. Once additional supplies and money had been gathered, the people commenced building the Temple structure itself. The laying of the foundation of the Temple is accompanied by much fanfare: praises are lifted to God by trumpets, cymbals, and singing. The ceremony marks the beginning of something new for the community, much like a ground-breaking ceremony with a golden shovel, or a ribbon-cutting with giant scissors, might do in any town today. The gathered people of Judah respond appropriately with great shouts of praise to God, full of joy about this moment of newness. Even so, there is a discordant note sounding among all the happy shouts.

Around fifty years have elapsed between the Babylonian exile and the beginning of the rebuilding project. Given the low life expectancies in the ancient world, the deprivations of war, and the arduous journeys to and from Babylon, there are surely not many people at this ceremony who had seen the first Temple and had survived this long to tell about it. Nevertheless, the text tells us that they were there, those “who had seen the first house on its foundations,” and that they wept aloud, even as the rest of the community shouted with joy. Contained within the elders’ sorrow is more than mere nostalgia for days gone by. Their grief testifies to an enormous transition in the very identity of the people of Judah. The memory of the “first house,” Solomon’s Temple, represents God’s favor for David and the mighty splendor of Solomon. It brings to mind the glory days of Israel, when it had its own ruler, and when the promises God made to Abraham of land and descendants appeared to have been realized. The Babylonian exile had shaken these theo-political convictions to the core. While the past is never quite as glorious as the memories of it, there was certainly a degree of political sovereignty to pre-exilic Israel that was now lost. Although the exiles had been allowed to return to Judah, they did so as subjects of the Persian Empire, not as autonomous Judeans. The foundations of this new Temple marked the absence of all the first Temple represented, as well as the presence of renewed hope and opportunity.

Just a few days after my son was born, I remember crying into my husband’s shoulder and telling him that I felt homesick for a place I could not go back to. I did not have post-partum depression (a very different circumstance altogether), I was full of joy and gratitude for the new life in our home, and I certainly had no regrets about undertaking parenthood. Rather, reflecting on that moment of tremendous change, the loss of what I had known had to be grieved, even as the wonders of what was ahead were celebrated. Within my own life, I could not fully distinguish the sound of my shouting from the sound of my weeping.

Grief over the loss of the old — even when the old was not better, even when the new has been longed for — intermingles with joy at the gaining of something new. This text from Ezra helps us see that such a cacophony of tears happens at the communal level, not just the individual. Churches and societies also experience this mixture of happiness and sorrow. I think especially of the many faith communities today who, facing death as a congregation, re-imagine their life together in new, groundbreaking ways. Ezra 3:10-13 provides a precedent for honoring both the joy and the grief in those moments, for marking them with worship and praise, and for testifying that, come what may, God’s steadfast love endures forever.

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